Atheists Sue Over the Inauguration December 29, 2008

Atheists Sue Over the Inauguration

***Update***: The lawsuit in question has undergone some revisions (including new plaintiffs). A few changes have been made since my original posting.

You can read further commentary on this lawsuit at Daily Kos here and here.

Atheist Michael Newdow (of “Under God” fame) and several other atheists are suing government officials over the injection of religion into the presidential Inauguration.

The lawsuit is being filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

You can see the Original Complaint (PDF) at Newdow’s website (click on “Challenge to Inaugural Prayer”).

Who is suing? Anyone and everyone, it seems.



Why “unnamed children”? Because, according to Newdow, the public prayers amount to the “coercive imposition of religious dogma specifically denounced by the Supreme Court” in so many other similar court cases.

Who is being sued?


What do the plaintiffs want?

They want to stop “so help me God” from being said during this inauguration and all future ones. Same with the prayers — both the invocation and benediction.

They don’t want extra money, but they do want to “recover costs, expert witness fees, attorney fees,” etc.

I do find it humorous that this section of the lawsuit is called “PRAYER FOR RELIEF.”

Why all the suing?

A couple key reasons:

  • The addition of “so help me God” to the presidential oath of office (said by Chief Justice John Roberts) violates the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment.
  • The government-sponsored use of any clergy at all during the inauguration violates the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment

To be clear, this is not an attack on Rick Warren for his bigoted views. That’s a separate issue.

It’s a lawsuit against using religion at all in a presidential inauguration.

Should Newdow win? Yes. He’s correct on both these counts. There’s no reason Barack Obama should be swearing an oath to God when he takes office. (If he chooses to do so personally, that’s his decision, but it shouldn’t be part of the official ceremony.) There’s also no reason we should have prayers — in this case, Christian ones — at the inauguration.

Will Newdow win? Not likely. He’s tried this before and failed.

In 2005, Newdow sued for the same reasons and the courts rejected his suit. U.S. District Judge John Bates, who oversaw that case, wrote this (PDF):

… the Court denies Newdow’s motion for a preliminary injunction that would enjoin the President and others from permitting clergy-led prayer at the 2005 Inauguration. Given the significant doubt that his action can proceed in the face of substantial questions relating to issue preclusion and standing, and the absence of a clearly established violation of the Establishment Clause, the Court concludes that Newdow has not satisfied the threshold requirement for extraordinary preliminary relief — a convincing showing of a substantial likelihood of success on the merits. Moreover, the balance of harms here, and particularly the public interest, does not weigh strongly in favor of the injunctive relief Newdow requests, which would require the unprecedented step of an injunction against the President.

Newdow has thus not met his burden of establishing that the extraordinary remedy of preliminary injunctive relief is warranted under the present circumstances. The motion for a preliminary injunction is therefore denied…

Is there anything different now from four years ago? Not that I can see.

It’s perhaps a symbolic lawsuit more than anything else. Newdow would disagree with that, though. He doesn’t file any lawsuit unless he thinks he has a chance at winning.

He does raise a few important points in the lawsuit that should be noted.

One is that, much like the injection of God on our money and into the Pledge of Allegiance in the 1950s, we didn’t always have prayers in the Inauguration ceremony.

That only began in 1937 (PDF) with Franklin Roosevelt.

Another is that the phrase “so help me God” isn’t a historic precedent, either. Newdow writes that the first verifiable use of that phrase took place in “1881, ninety-two years after George Washington’s initial ceremony” — when “Chester A. Arthur took the oath upon hearing of President James Garfield’s death.”

After that, it was used sporadically until 1933 (again, with Roosevelt). Newdow adds that the phrase was not used in 1929 at Herbert Hoover’s inauguration.

There’s a kick in the head for anyone who believes we were founded as a Christian nation.

Just as with the Pledge Case, Newdow has the facts on his side. But I’m not optimistic about the lawsuit achieving any results.

Will it hurt us in the long run, though? I doubt it.

There is an upside to all this: the lawsuit can help raise consciousness about these issues. Presidential inaugurations used to be solely about our country — not about praying to a specific God.

It would be nice to see a president and government respecting that secular tradition.

Update: There are several interesting posts on the inclusion of the phrase “So Help Me God” at American Creation.

(Thanks to Eliza for the link!)

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Wet Mogwai

    I’ve always heard that George Washington added the God bit on the oath. Like so many stories attributed to him, I wouldn’t be surprised that it was a myth. Do you have a link to more information on Arthur starting it?

  • Rangarajan

    Indian Constitution gives two options –
    “swear in the name of God” or “solemnly affirm”.
    So anyone who is not a christian can use the other form because swearing in the name of God is a christian protocol.

  • I think it may take a president-elect asking to be excused from saying the phrase to make the change. Perhaps (ironically, som might say) it will be a Christian from a tradition that objects to oaths and swearing on Biblical grounds. Oaths are prohibited in the sermon on the mount.

    Do you think there is a stronger, and perhaps even more appropriate case, to be made for making the clause optional? I suppose that, on the one hand, this is official wording and endorsement of religion ought to be absent. On the other hand, Barack Obama clearly has a personal faith committment, and I am not sure that he has to keep those faith committments out of the public view in order for there to be equal religious protection for all under the first amendment.

  • PrimeNumbers

    Good for them. I’m getting sick of liars and frauds for Jesus who know what the rules are (no religion in government) yet try to, and succeed putting it in every chance they get. The Founding Fathers would be turning in their graves, as would a lot of early Americans who came to America to escape religious tyranny!

  • I don’t see what the big deal is. He’s not telling people to worship God. All he’s doing is asking for God’s help in executing his duties. Even if he was asking Zeus or Vishnu or some other god I don’t believe in for help, it would not bother me. If an atheist were elected to the presidency then he or she could say a version of the oath that did not include the phrase just as President Hoover did.

  • Newdow demonstrates a tin ear when it comes to politics and lack the ability to choose their battles. Whether we consider the use of the phrase “so help me God” a violation of the Establishment Clause or not, the President will still have to be the President and will still need to muster political support if he is to accomplish anything while in office. And like it or not, the majority of Americans want to know that the President believes in God (they’d rather have a Muslim than an atheist as President, as we all know) and this is a political signal to them that he does. Leave this battle for a new President whose stand on the question of belief in God is unquestioned.

  • The saying “The squeaky wheel gets the oil” comes to mind.

    The lawsuit may not be successful but it does produce a squeak that may, over time, lead to change.

  • Skepticat

    I’m still very unclear on the details of the inauguration. Is it taxpayer funded or paid for by Obama & friends? If it’s taxpayer funded, then certainly it should be religion-free. But if Obama or his pals are footing the cost, would that make a difference? Even if it’s a public event, would private funding make the invocations ok?

    Hope someone can help me understand this.

  • Eliza

    I found a few sites that say the inauguration is paid for by donors. However: the date and oath of office are determined by the U.S. Constitution, inauguration day is a federal holiday for federal employees in D.C., the government provides security, & a bunch of people on the tax payroll are there on official business, and – most importantly – it’s the moment in which a public officer (who will lead all the people, including atheists) takes public office in public (in a manner now broadcast across the entire country), in a country in which government may not establish religion according to the First Amendment.

    Article II of the U.S. Constitution says:

    Before he [the President] enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:–”I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

    Newdow’s complaint says that Obama could presumably choose on his own to add words at the end of this, but that Roberts shouldn’t add words when he recites it & asks Obama to repeat after him in this official context.

  • Eliza

    Here’s Wikipedia’s history of presidential inaugurations. According to that page, Franklin Pierce was the only one “definitely known” to have affirmed (rather than “sworn”) the oath. The book is optional; John Q. Adams took the oath on a book of U.S. law rather than the Bible. (Go, JQA!)

    Page 17 of the .pdf of the Newdow complaint to be filed today gives references from the 1800’s (1 book, 1 newspaper article) for the claims about Washington not saying “shmG” and Chester Arthur being the first one to say it.

  • There are a number of blogs that tell more about the legendary claim that George Washington added “So help me God” to his presidential oath. For starters I recommend J.L. Bell’s blog, Boston 1775: “Swearing into Office ‘So help me God’.” Here’s a worthwhile follow-up piece.

  • j.fletcher

    im pretty sure that Barak Obama is an atheist and knows that he has to play the part of good believer in order to attain the highest office in the land.I don’t blame him though,i guess you have to do whats necessary.

  • Eliza

    I pray that he’s an atheist 😉

    This all got me to thinking – if anyone here were being sworn into public office, would you “swear” or “affirm” the oath, and what would you pick for:

    (1) a final “riff” (instead of “so help me God”) at the end of the oath?

    (2) a book to put your hand on as you swear or affirm? (Would it matter what office you were taking on?)

  • @Eliza, I probably wouldn’t add a final “riff,” but I’ve always thought I would and that everyone should be affirming on a copy of the Constitution.

    About the lawsuit, I’ve always wondered if the addition of “so help me God” to various oaths of office violates the “no religious test” portion of Article 6 in addition to or above the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment? Anyone know or have an idea?

  • Mriana

    Sigh. This fight is getting old. I wish there were another way to stop disputes and acheive a secular nation as our fore-fathers wanted. However, I seriously doubt hardline Xians are going to accept such a thing as there being more than one philosophy in the U.S., besides their own, without a court battle.

  • Justin jm

    Should Newdow win? Yes. He’s correct on both these counts. There’s no reason Barack Obama should be swearing an oath to God when he takes office. (If he chooses to do so personally, that’s his decision, but it shouldn’t be part of the official ceremony.) There’s also no reason we should have prayers — in this case, Christian ones — at the inauguration.

    I’m not sure about this. Why shouldn’t Obama say SHMG at the official ceremony if it’s his personal choice?

    The major question here is whether an inauguration is a government or private ceremony, which I guess depends on where the funding for the inauguration is coming from.

  • JakeL, I don’t think adding SHMG to the end of the oath is a “test” or “qualification.” If it’s added, Obama would still have sworn the oath that the Constitution requires, and the SHMG is surplussage. The oath that C.J. Roberts administers is not nearly as important as the words that Obama actually says.

  • RickP

    Attempts like this have failed in the past, so the chances are slim that it will prevail.

    An writer asks: How would Christians respond if a praise to Haile Selassie was included in the inauguration?

    See her story:

  • Hey, I wrote a diary about your blog on this topic at Daily Kos. Go check out the 135+ comments here.

  • State of Protest has an entry referring to this article, as well, here.

  • I agree. The lawsuit should proceed and the focus should be on the official oath rather than what Obama may or may not wish to add to it.

  • @WayBeyondSoccerMom

    Godwin-ed on the third comment…that’s gotta be a record, right?? 🙂

  • Dave

    I am actually now embarrassed to say I am Atheist. This is part of History of this country. Its not being forced on anyone. You have the option to change the channel or close your ears.

    Besides, the Inauguration is for the President benefit, not for ours.

  • Trish

    “I don’t see what the big deal is. He’s not telling people to worship God. All he’s doing is asking for God’s help in executing his duties. Even if he was asking Zeus or Vishnu or some other god I don’t believe in for help, it would not bother me. If an atheist were elected to the presidency then he or she could say a version of the oath that did not include the phrase just as President Hoover did.”

    Asad, I am not surprised that believers would not be bothered by a president mentioning any god, especially since there is popular consensus among American believers that any religion is better than none, and that ethical behavior requires some sort of religious belief.

    Letting presidents choose to include a god in their inauguration allows a president to demonstrate that the feelings of believers is more important than the feelings of nonbelievers, marking nonbelievers as second class citizens, because the belief is mentioned and nonbelief is not.

    Telling nonchristians &/or nonbelievers to suck it up when god is mentioned in official government communications, or when crèches [or menorahs, or trees or a wiccan star, or even a Mithras sword] are placed on state property because it’s “no big deal” is hogwash. If it’s not a big deal, then why are so many people so willing to spend so much time telling everyone it’s no big deal, suck it up? It’s a big deal because by linking the symbols of religions with functions of government, believers create a climate in which nonbelief is associated with silence & absence, and therefore, something less than other citizens. If American christians wanted to act like grown ups, they would say, “It’s no big deal whether there’s a mention of god on our money or a crèche in our courthouse, so we will remove them to prevent any appearance of favoritism or impropriety.”

    I would also note there are plenty of places where it would be completely appropriate for American christians to print words like “In God we Trust” or to place crèches or christmas trees – that would be in church publications, and on church property.

  • schempp

    Dave said: I am actually now embarrassed to say I am Atheist. This is part of History of this country. Its not being forced on anyone. You have the option to change the channel or close your ears.

    Besides, the Inauguration is for the President benefit, not for ours.

    see comments

    Personal religious conscience/beliefs are very distinct from pandering displays of piety in public.

    “Debate about the complexities of dealing with terrorist threats abroad and good policies at home is impaired when God and religion are mixed up with patriotism.”

    “It does government no good to rely on magical thinking or superstitious invocations, and it does religion no good to be isolated from reality.”

  • Joe

    I am an atheist and I strongly support my Country and the Constitution. The First Ammendment is very clear, there is to be no law respecting an establishment of religion. That means no recognizing, no concern for, no consideration, etc. for the recognition, proving, securing etc. of any religion. Therefore there should be no mention of anything of a religious nature including the word or term god during any governmental function, on or in any governmental property or by anyone on any governmental clock. This country has been lead around like a flock of sheep to a slaughter house for too long, there’s way too much tax money being spent on religious issues. I know as I have to deal with it everyday and it needs to cease. This is where it needs to start, with lawsuits like this one. I’m definitely going to get more active now.

  • There’s a new diary about the Newdow, et al, lawsuit at Daily Kos today. You can find it here.

    If you read the comments at this diary, you will see that one of the people actually involved in the lawsuit is writing comments. Pretty cool.

    BTW, my diary at Daily Kos ended up generating over 280 comments, and the poll was definitely in favor of the lawsuit. Yay!

    And, yes, it was startling in my diary that atheism got linked to the Nazis within a few moments. Pretty sad.

  • Pariah of the pious

    Forgive me, I am new to this forum but not new to our shared perspective. I do have a question for the community:
    If we collectively don’t believe in god and this is OUR forum, why capitalize the word?

  • Forgive me, I am new to this forum but not new to our shared perspective. I do have a question for the community:
    If we collectively don’t believe in god and this is OUR forum, why capitalize the word?

    I go back and forth.

    I think I’m just a grammar stickler and I see God as a proper name in most cases. So while I may write “gods” (plural), I also write “God” (singular).

  • Pariah of the pious

    Trust me, I get the whole proper name thing…but it isn’t a proper name for us. For our perspective it is just another word, like “dog.” The only time the word, “God” is capitalized is when it is referred to by a monotheist:

    “God moved me.” OR “In the name of God.”

    But that’s only when being referred to by someone of that faith. Capitalizing the word has little to do with being a singular and more to do with the observation of said antiquated ideologies.

    That being said, this is OUR forum. OUR place to exercise OUR rights and attempt to exorcise the unreal from reality.

  • Patriot St

    I have to ask the question…

    Wouldn’t an easier solution to this entire situation be to hit Newdow with a fast moving bus? I really wonder how much time is being devoted to his duties in the ER as a physician in between his twisted rants. I love how the minority segment of the populus seems to believe they can drive decision making.

    Michael Newdow…the Supreme Court…THE SUPREME COURT tossed your dumb ass out of court. It’s over…go home. You lost…go home. There’s not another court of appeals to reach out to…go home.

    Go be an atheist in the comfort of your own home and be at peace with that luxury.

    That way the rest of us don’t have to seek legal counsel to sue you for religious persecution.

    Thanks and GOD BLESS!!!!!!!!!

  • Paul LaClair

    I am proud to say that our daughter Katherine (Matthew’s sister) is one of the plaintiffs. I believe she may be the only plaintiff who is attending the inauguration. This will forclose a lack-of-standing argument.

    Keep up the good work, Hemant.

  • Paul LaClair

    Not that you’re listening, “Patriot,” but these symbols are very important, which is why theists want them so badly. Apparently you do not understand that the Constitution protects the rights of minorities; or maybe you just don’t care. In this case, it is the right of the minority not to have the president’s inauguration used as a vehicle for proselytizing monotheism.

  • Andre Girnau

    Hi while i do believe in God I may be able to clear this up the part so help me God is optional the President when getting sworn in can add anything he wants or leave it plain the only reason the Jusstice says it is the same reason a minester or other person at a wedding reads the marriage vows. Also everything is a religion even atheism so you cant seperate church and state thus the 1st Amendment says Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
    Notice it says Congress so you could have any kind of state the majority wants Christian Muslim Atheist or anything else as this does not restrict the states from organizing a religion. Plus taxing money from people then saying you can only use it in secular public schools violates the 1st amendment what should happen is at the beginning of a school year each parent gets there part of the money with a stipulation it be used only for educating at the school type of their choice Thus preserving neutrality. Plua aince youare a small minority why not join together and rather then remaking the us in your image find some unused place thats nice and make your own country. Its what the founders did when they were the minority in england.
    Oh in closing whos the greater fool someone who believes thers a God and dies and if there isnt ceases to exist or someone who dosent and finds out after death there is a God and a Hell and theyve landed there

  • Richard Wade

    Patriot St,
    You start your comment with a suggestion to murder someone, and finish it with “GOD BLESS.” I wonder whether that interesting juxtaposition says something not very flattering about your religion or about your character.

    In the middle you dismiss Newdow’s efforts as twisted rants and the minority opinion.

    Keep in mind that every opinion you hold, safe and apparently smug in your comfortable majority, was once a minority opinion. Every assumption you take for granted was once seen as a radical, even dangerous idea. The founding fathers understood this, because they were crafting a radical, even dangerous idea, that of true and total freedom of and from religion. They remembered clearly the horrors of religion and state power corrupting each other, because for them it had not been long ago. As time has passed, people have forgotten how ugly and evil that combination can be, and people have become sloppy about it. Newdow and others are trying to restore the degraded separation that protects us all. Assuming that you are a theist, you should be very much in favor of keeping church and state out of each others’ beds. I’m sure you’d not like the result if they co-mingled any further than they have already in this country. When have you ever seen the government handle something really important completely to your liking? If this trend continues, then the “religious persecution” you mention will not come from the likes of Newdow, but from your own beloved government.

    I consider myself a patriot as well, because I support and protect the principles of freedom and integrity that are the foundation of the Constitution. Supporting whatever is the majority opinion and the established power structure at the time, regardless of what it is doing is not patriotism. That is just blind and complacent obedience.

  • Paul LaClair

    Mr. Girnau, the greater fool is the one who imagines that even if there was a God, he/she would send someone to hell for a sincerely held belief, which just always happens to be what someone else believes. It is the person who cannot see beyond the projection of his own ego. Have you ever considered the possibility that God might not appreciate you thinking that he would torment his children, and that you’re the one with the problem?

  • PJR

    If we must remove any belief system from the inauguration then anyone who is an atheist cannot be involved (it’s a belief system), that also eliminated all other religions. Maybe we will have to cancel the inauguration just to insure that no one might be offended that everyone involved are not atheist or Baptist or Muslims, or…..
    I think the inmates have taken over the asylum.

  • Ted

    Why do they say “and other atheists”? It’s that’s doing it. I’m tired of seeing American Atheists not mention FFRF. There’s no reason to be in competition here. We are all atheists. Stop with this subtle bullshit.

  • james bunyan

    im british and atheist and i cant understand a country that states religion and politics must remain seperate, then lets it invade evry part of their life, and do nothing, obviously the law suit should go ahead and all refrence to religion should be removed from public places and money, and court houses etc, religion is a personal thing so keep it in the home and in places of worship you choose to visit, not in the face of evry one that passes, that meens billboards too, and as for the word god, i prefer the term invisable freind, as its more factual, so no more “so help me invisable freind”, and no more “in our invisable freind we trust” just my thoughts on it.

  • David B

    James Bunyan. I am an American and an Atheist as well. I was once Christian, AND I DID NOT UNDERSTAND IT THEN EITHER.

  • DaOptimist

    Someone asked what we would do if we were being sworn into office. I recently was sworn in to work with the Census Bureau and when it came time to take the oath, I noticed that it had me “swearing”…..”so help me God.” I quickly spoke up and asked what oath that an atheist can take and I was allowed to “affirm” my oath to uphold the Constitution and I was also allowed to cross out (and not say) the “so help me God” part. I am glad that they did not discriminate against me and they were all very respectful to me. What bothers me though, was the fact that the “so help me God” was even in there as the default version of the oath……and that others did not even question it. As far as the inauguration, I don’t think that swearing an oath under god should be a default part of any government ceremony….HOWEVER, if someone wanted to do so, personally, they should be allowed to do so. If Obama really wants to swear an oath under god, that should be his choice….although we are the citizens, he is the one taking the office and if he wants to swear to Allah or God or Shiva or the Spaghetti Monster or Santa or anyone, he should be able to make that choice….it is HIS oath (promise to uphold). If he wants to put his hand on a Bible or a copy of Breakfast of Champions or a box of Ding-Dongs, I don’t care….those choices don’t affect me….it’s HIS oath. If he were to demand that we had to take an oath and swear to god, THEN I would speak up. Just as if I wanted to swear on my father’s grave, I should be allowed to do so. I don’t think that there should be prayer offered at an inauguration, but the choice of how to be sworn in should be up to the swear-ee. Just my $5.00 (two-bits has gone up in these economic times).

  • Alex L.

    I voted for Obama because I thought he was somewhat more rational than Bush. For O. to begin his presidency with a chat with an imaginary being does not bode well for the nation. Considering that human pathogenesis is a core belief of his faith (a belief akin to Athena springing fully armed from the brow of Zeus) I am really worried about what other nonsense we can expect from our new president.

  • Racje

    Beyond the Constitutional requirements for the oath, It’s clear that “so help me God” and putting a hand on a Bible are NOT part of a legal requirement, but are chosen at the discretion of the person being sworn in as President of the USA. Barack Obama gets to choose.

    Article II, section 1, clause 8 of the US Constitution requires the President to say : “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” No mention or religion at all.

    According to some traditions, “So help me God” was spontaneously added by George Washington at the first inaugural, although there is no contemporary evidence of this. (It would be interesting to know when the first mention of this tradition was.) Many subsequent Presidents have said it, apparently as a matter of choice or custom, not law, including all since Franklin D Roosevelt.

    I would like to know whether and when the “So help me God” bit has been included as part of the prompt given by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and whether and when it’s been left for the incoming President to say without a prompt.

    “Affirming” an oath without reference to God or sacred works is an option the founding fathers provided for in the Constitution to protect the rights of atheists, agnostics, and religious groups like Quakers who believe in a single standard of truth. Franklin Pierce chose to “affirm” rather than “swear;” all other Presidents have chosen to “swear,” except possibly Herbert Hoover, a practicing Quaker–the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies says he “affirmed,” but other sources say he “swore.”

    In 1825, John Quincy Adams took the oath using a law book (some say it was the Constitution) rather than a Bible. Theodore Roosevelt used no Bible in 1901 but did use one in 1905. For those who think the Constitution is preferable to the Bible because slavery is endorsed in the Bible, I suggest reading the Constitution, Article I, section 2.

    The oath prescribed by the Constitution, which includes no mention of God or religion or religious books, is what is required by law. The First Amendment’s “No establishment” clause means that Presidents taking office can’t be compelled to use any particular or general reference to religion. The “Free exercise” clause means they may choose to do so.

    Barack Obama gets to choose whether or not to ask for God’s help, and whether to put his hand on a Bible, and whether to “swear” or “affirm.” I am not disposed to take away to his right to publicly ask for help from God, hope, love, reason, or any other entity he feels he needs.

    If he asked me for advice, I’d suggest that he tell Chief Justice John Roberts that he doesn’t want or need to be prompted to say “so help me God” after the legal oath; then, if Obama wants to call on God’s help, he could go ahead and do so. That would make it clear what is part of the legal oath and what is a personal exercise of religion. It would also separate John Roberts’ theology from Barack Obama’s.

    But he hasn’t asked….

  • NateIsRight

    How to end the oath: Instead of “shmg”, say “This I promise to my fellow Americans”

    How’s that?

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